Expert casts doubt on ‘post-truth’ claims

Hard truths: Philosopher J S Mill might be very confused by our idea of “post-truth”.

Does democracy REALLY depend on truth? Many people claim democratic systems only work when everyone agrees on basic truths – but others think this is a recipe for dictatorship.

The last ten years have been some of the most tumultuous in modern times. The European Union’s 70-year history of constant expansion came to an abrupt end when the United Kingdom voted to leave. Right-wing demagogues have come to power in Turkey, India, the Philippines, Hungary, the USA and Brazil. There have been riots in Britain, France, Spain and Germany. And in America, a far-right movement has gone from strength to strength, briefly seizing the very corridors of power.

Before that, politics in the western world were relatively stable. Moderate, centrist, internationalist parties consistently won elections. Often there was only a small ideological gap between parties of the right and left. So what changed?

For many, the obvious explanation for the surge in far-right politics is that something has gone wrong with democracy. They argue that democracy cannot function when people do not agree on what is true and what is false.

According to this theory, it has become harder and harder for most people to distinguish fact from fiction, thanks to the rise of extremely partisan media outlets and fake news that spreads quickly on social media.

If people disagree on the most fundamental question of all – what is true and what is a lie – they cannot have any rational discussion of political issues. Some refer to this as “post-truth” politics.

The theory argues that once a society has lost its grasp on a common truth, it is vulnerable to conspiracy theories that fuel political extremism. People will be unable to change each other’s mind or reach compromises. They might even come to see elections as illegitimate or fraudulent. Historian Timothy Snyder claims that “post-truth is pre-fascism”.

But others think Snyder has it the wrong way round. Sociologist Dylan Riley argues that democracy does not depend on truth at all. He points out that for one of the earliest theorists of democracy, John Stuart Mill, it was not truth that produced a democratic system, but a democratic system that produced truth.

The problem with basing democracy on a common truth, Riley argues, is that the truth is rarely obvious. That means someone always has to decide what is true and what is false.

For Mill, this was the purpose of democratic debate. A healthy democracy is one in which people have faith in political institutions that create the space for rational debate, in which we all decide what is true and what is false.

On the other hand, if democracy is dependent on truth, that means someone has to decide what is true before democratic debate takes place. Riley believes that whoever wields the power to define truth can prevent their political opponents from participating in the debate at all, simply by declaring that their beliefs are false.

In this case, real power does not lie with the people, but with whoever decides in advance what the truth really is. For Riley, this is not democracy at all: it is a recipe for a theocracy or a dictatorship.

Does democracy REALLY depend on truth?

Truth or dare

Yes, say some. Rational, constructive debate is impossible if people do not agree on fundamental truths. We have to establish this truth before we can have a democratic debate. If we attempt rational discussion with conspiracy theorists, we risk spreading their poison still further. And when conspiracy theories spread, democratic debate becomes impossible.

Not at all, say others. Insisting on a single, objective truth is actually a threat to democracy. If we are only allowed to participate in a democratic debate once we have accepted certain “truths”, then those who define those “truths” have the power to silence us. Democracy does not depend on truth; in reality, the role of democracy is to produce common truths.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather live in a country in which everyone believes in a single truth? Or in a country where they can disagree, but many people are wrong?
  2. Who should decide what “the truth” really is?

Activities

  1. Write down three truths and one lie. Share your four statements with others from your class. See if they can guess which is the lie.
  2. Four people in the class are explorers looking for investors in their sailing trip around the world; however, the rest of the class believes that the world is flat. The explorers should try to persuade everyone else to invest in their trip.

Some People Say...

“An unbelieved truth can hurt a man much more than a lie. It takes great courage to back truth unacceptable to our times. There's a punishment for it, and it's usually crucifixion.”

John Steinbeck (1902 – 1968), US novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that societies are often founded on myths. In England, it was the myth of an ancient constitution dating back to the Anglo-Saxons. Modern Germany was largely based on the idea of an ancient German people that came together to preserve their common independence from the Roman Empire. National myths help to give a people a sense of their shared identity, and distinguish them from all other societies: it reassures them of their special destiny.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over whether or not “truth” really exists. Modern science is based on the idea that some claims are “true” and others are “false”, and we can find out which are which by comparing them with our observations of reality. But philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued that nothing is objectively “true” or “false”: these are labels that human beings invent in order to understand their world. They take on moral force because they help to manage relations between humans.

Word Watch

Demagogues
A leader who takes power by whipping up the people against the elites, usually in a cynical and self-serving way.
Internationalist
A political position that favours international co-operation and the free flow of people, goods, services and ideas across borders.
Partisan
Fanatically supporting a particular party or viewpoint, even if it means manipulating the truth on their behalf.
Illegitimate
A government is legitimate if its right to govern is widely respected. If its right to govern is not widely recognised, then it is illegitimate.
Timothy Snyder
An American historian who has compared modern right-wing leaders, including Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, with historical dictators.
Fascism
A political ideology that rose to power in 20th-Century Europe. It stressed militarism and order over personal freedom, and often divided society according to racial hierarchies.
Sociologist
Someone who studies the rules and patterns that govern human societies.
John Stuart Mill
A 19th-Century English philosopher who wrote extensively about freedom and democracy. He is regarded as the father of modern liberalism.
Institutions
In a democracy, power is distributed around a variety of institutions. These include parliament and the civil service, but also the media, charities and pressure groups.
Theocracy
A government run by religious leaders, usually according to religious law.

Subjects

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